Live From Packers Camp - Family Night Scrimmage at Lambeau
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The Packers tradition of a “family night” scrimmage is unique in the league. In this metropolitan area of just 300,000 people (by far the smallest NFL market) Lambeau Field drew 47,844 fans on Saturday night for an intra-squad scrimmage! Did I mention there was an “extreme trampoline team” performing, a dance team, high school cheerleaders, Native American dancers from the Oneida Nation and yes, even fireworks—all for a $10 ticket. Not a bad night’s entertainment in this day of $400 re-sale tickets and luxury suites. All 47,844 of us had a blast, but that’s probably not why you’re reading this column.
In my book, there are quarterbacks who are comfortable in their system, and then there are quarterbacks in command of their system. Aaron Rodgers is in complete command of every aspect of the Packers offense. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady are the other quintessential field commanders in the NFL. Some will disagree, but I have Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers and Matt Schaub as “on the brink.”
Think back to the gut-wrenching draft-day slide that Aaron Rodgers had to endure. Now fast-forward to his being in the perfect place at this perfect time, coached to succeed and surrounded with the talent necessary for a Super Bowl run. Credit should be given to Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy, GM Ted Thompson, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy for making the tough decisions necessary to have the Packers poised to reclaim the Lombardi Trophy for Title Town.
Rodgers had a respectable night, completing 9 or 14 passes for 127 yards and a TD. His array of weapons is impressive and growing, but it is his ability to make use of those weapons that has him as the top-rated fantasy QB going into the 2010 season. It also doesn’t hurt his fantasy numbers that the Packers rushed 8 times for a total of 8 yards. Rodgers was in the top-4 QBs in most offensive categories in 2009, and he also rushed for 316 yards and 5 TDs. If he’s not in your top 3 QBs heading into your draft, you might want to consider another hobby.
One of the hottest topics this fantasy draft season is 6’5” TE Jermichael Finley, who racked up 55 receptions for 676 yards and 5 TDs in essentially 10 games for the Packers last year. Finley has not only surpassed 8-year veteran Donald Lee on the depth chart, he has buried him. Finley gave the Lambeau faithful something to cheer at the scrimmage, with 4 receptions, 55 yards and a nice TD in very limited play. It’s clear his size and athleticism will make Finley the first read on 3rd down and in the red zone.
If he can stay healthy, the Rodgers-to-Finley combination could produce 850 yards and might approach double digit TDs. That’s Donald Driver-type yardage, with twice as many TDs. The problem is, fantasy owners know the mismatches he creates for a defense, and Finley is going ahead of other stud TEs in mock drafts. He had great value in 2009, but might be overvalued in 2010. There are other great choices, like Brent Celek in PHI, Kellen Winslow in TB or Vernon Davis in SF. Personally, I put him just outside of the top tier of TEs, because of his injury risk. There is one reason I might reach for him, and that is if I end up with Rodgers as my QB because of my draft position. It would be akin to having the Manning-to-Clark combination in Indianapolis—not too shabby.
Green Bay drafted TE Andrew Quarless (Penn State) in the 5th round. This is one big rook on the practice field. The program says he’s an inch shorter than Finley, but I’m not buying it. I stood beside them, and Quarless is taller with a bigger wingspan. He owns the TE record book at Penn State, but Happy Valley isn’t the NFL. It’s a tough position to learn in McCarthy’s system, and dropping a pass in the end zone (uncovered) during the scrimmage won’t endear you to Aaron Rodgers or the coaching staff. The Packers might have to carry 3 TEs because of Finley’s injury risk, but Donald Lee makes a bunch of money to be a 3rd-string blocking tight end. If I had to guess, I’d say Lee and his salary are gone before week 1, if Quarless can grasp the playbook.
The WR situation remains the same in Green Bay. Stud Greg Jennings is the top dog, and should hit 1100+ yards and a TD about every other game. Jennings remains a top-10 WR in all formats. Donald Driver is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery in the off-season, but has resumed light contact in practice. He did not play in this scrimmage. When healthy, owners can count on Double D for 800+ yards and 4-6 TDs. His surgeries (and age) have fantasy owners trying to figure out if James Jones or Jordy Nelson would benefit the most if Driver is sidelined. Honestly, it’s a coin-toss on my board. The scrimmage only muddied my crystal ball further. The Packers did seem to try to “force” the ball to Jones during the scrimmage, but that may have just been because Nelson was sidelined early.
“Jack Rabbit” Jordy is a highlight waiting to happen, but there is a little black cloud that follows him on game day. In the scrimmage, he made a spectacular (leaping) grab over two defenders for a gain of 27 yards, only to be “dinged” and sit the rest of the evening with a right-side contusion following a decent hit. Jones will be remembered Saturday night for catching a TD wide of the end zone, and being stripped of a reception at the goal line by 2nd-team DBs. Both have looked good on the practice field, but Nelson hasn’t stepped-up yet and Jones remains inconsistent. So who benefits if Driver goes down? Jermichael Finley, of course! Seriously, it’s RBC (receptions by committee) in GB after Jennings and Finley. Rodgers will post huge numbers, but reception totals will be divided-up all over the roster.
Ryan Grant continues to look “unspectacular,” although he is in line for the majority of the rushing workload. The Packers were 14th in the league rushing the ball in 2009, with 117 yards/game. While not great numbers, Ryan Grant accounted for nearly 70% of them. With a pass-heavy attack and mediocre run-blocking at the point of attack, look for similar numbers this season.
To be fair, one reason the running game struggled in the scrimmage was the Packers run defense, ranked first in the NFL last year in yardage allowed. In the 2nd-year of Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, this group will continue to rule the line of scrimmage. Nose tackle B.J. Raji plays big in the middle, and the LBs swarm the point of attack. It was encouraging to see Raji in great shape. Even on this warm and muggy night, he came off the field each time, ready for more. Capers will have a big decision to make in a year or two when other teams come calling for a head coach.
The challenge for the defense will be in the secondary, with injuries draped over this group like a blanket. Al Harris, Will Blackmon, Atari Bigby and Charles Woodson (defensive player of the year in 2009) are all dealing with injuries. LBs Nick Barnett, Brady Poppinga and Frank Zombo also sat out of the scrimmage as a precaution.
One interesting side note—the Packers will see a nice gain in the battle for field position in 2010. They made it a priority to recruit punters, and they have 2 legitimate starters in Chris Bryan (Aussie Rules Football) and Tim Masthay (University of Kentucky). This will give Rodgers & Finley a short field, and pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory—advantage Packers!
Finally, what to do with Mason Crosby? Crosby nailed FGs of 26, 31, 36, 41, 47, 51 and 53 yards on Saturday night. His lone miss was from 44 yards out. He struggled last year (75% FG success) and his rating in camp thus far is actually 70% according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette sports blogs. He kicks outdoors at Lambeau, on a team that scores TDs not FGs. He does have the complete support of the coaching staff, however, as he is the only kicker in camp.